CREATING an opera based on real-life events is nothing new:
think of the historical operas of Handel, Rossini or Verdi; and
more recently Nixon in China or The Death of
Klinghoffer. The difference between the earlier and the later
ones is that Nixon and Klinghoffer recount events
within living memory, with people, or their families and friends,
who may still be alive.
Hence the controversy - before a note was heard - surrounding
Between Worlds, a new opera by the composer Tansy Davies,
librettist Nick Drake, and director Deborah Warner, which received
its world première by the English National Opera at the Barbican
Theatre last week, to be followed by several further performances
there until Saturday 25 April.
The subject is 9/11 and the destruction of New York's World
Trade Center - the "Twin Towers" - not a subject for entertainment,
according to many with connections to this terrible disaster. But
the opera was announced by the ENO as "spiritual, poetic and
ultimately uplifting", and the healing power of music is surely
The worlds of the title are life and death. The subject is, of
course, huge; so what we see and hear is a microcosm of this
unspeakable event. "Music is a fantastic vehicle for expressing
energy, emotion, feelings that go beyond language," Davies says,
and Nick Drake agrees: "Music in the end moves us beyond what is
sayable into the unsayable, and that's where we need to go with a
story like this."
This is not a sensationalist opera. In fact it begins almost
imperceptibly, with the janitor of one of the floors of the North
Tower pausing to contemplate the spectacular view over New York and
watching the dawn break. He is extending his night shift to help
set up the room for a meeting. A figure of calm reassurance, he
remains so throughout the events that follow.
All the characters are fictional and nameless, and the action is
presented on three levels. On the floor of the stage are the people
going about their normal lives, looking forward to a good day. But
the mundane occurrences - the man's argument with his wife, the
troublesome child who will not say goodbye to his mother before she
goes to work, the parting of two lovers, the excitement of the
young man, new to the city - are to assume great significance when
they find themselves at the point of no return in the Tower.
When this moment arrives - in the office on a higher level of
the stage - time opens out, so that what would have taken place
simultaneously, and within a very short period throughout both
buildings, is slowed down so that the thoughts and reactions of the
four featured victims - attempting to make contact with their loved
ones, and grappling with the realisation that they are not going to
survive - is given a prominence to which the destruction of the
towers becomes merely the background.
Over all this a shamanic figure (a countertenor) presides at the
highest point of the stage, the janitor being the only one who
appears to have any inkling of his presence, and for whom he
becomes a spirit guide.
The orchestra provides a reassuring undercurrent throughout,
perhaps suggesting the palm of God's hand; and indeed, as the
Firemen realise the enormity of the situation, they sing from the
requiem mass; and the victims in the office, as the end comes, sing
from Psalm 130, "Out of the Deep". Ultimately, on all levels, the
power of darkness is matched with light.
The words are crucial, but throughout much of the performance
were not as clearly projected as they should have been, one
exception being Susan Bickley as the Mother of the Younger Man,
very touching in her incomprehending desolation.
Nevertheless, Between Worlds still comes across as a
very powerful piece, brilliantly conceived and presented, which
will surely grow with greater familiarity. Davies has, as she
herself wished, "[turned] something very complex and difficult into
something healing and beautiful", demonstrating the enduring,
transcending power of love and the power of music to express
Further performances of Between Worlds at the
Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2, are tonight at 7.30
p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m, and 21, 23, and 25 April at 7.30 p.m.
Tickets exclusively from Barbican Box Office: 020 7638